Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
This book is about a girl named Hannah who commits suicide, after recording tapes that she sends to thirteen people who she blames for driving her to that extreme. The story consists of the content of the tapes and the thoughts of one of the people, Clay, as he listens to them. David and I listened to the audiobook on a long drive, and it was a very good book to listen to. The two narrators worked well together to tell the story. Since the story is about a recording of Hannah’s voice, listening to it felt appropriate.
The one thing I worry about with this book is how appealing it actually makes suicide. Hannah’s voice from the tapes is so powerful, and what gives it power is speaking from beyond the grave. She is so sure of herself, so indignant. “Look what you did to me,” she says. The dominant tone in the beginning of the book is anger, and that anger empowers Hannah, transforming her into an avenging angel. If only she had been able to hold on to that anger, rather than letting it give way to hopelessness. The tapes and the suicide are the perfect revenge on all of these people who hurt her so terribly. I got a chill down my back imagining a bullied teenager reading this book, and realizing how much power suicide could give her or him. How many sad teenagers fantasize about making their pain matter to others, making people sit up and take notice and listen to them, showing their tormentors the effects of their abuse and having them care? Hannah achieves that, at least somewhat, but only at the price of her life. Without the suicide to make her words resonate, no one would have listened, least of all the people who hurt her most.
I read a few reviews, but no one I found in my quick search brought up this issue. Maybe it’s unique to me. Maybe I’m a weirdo for thinking of it this way. The biggest criticisms of the book I saw were that the things that happened to Hannah weren’t that big a deal, so she just came off as whiny. I can see why someone might say that, but that wasn’t my reaction. I don’t think it takes a lot to send a depressed teen over the edge. It’s easy for an outsider to think an offense is petty, even though it feels like the end of the world for the victim, especially when we’re talking about teenagers. If anything, the offenses against Hannah might have been too topical, too connected to current concerns about bullying. For that reason I think the book might not enjoy very long popularity. That, and the fact that audio tapes are already foreign concepts to today’s teenagers. Today’s middle schoolers were all born after 1998, at the very latest, when CDs were already taking over. I imagine teachers might have to bring in cassettes to show students what they look like.
Despite my strange fear that the book inadvertently makes suicide appealing, the book does a lot to show how tragic and wrong it actually is. Clay’s pain is clear, demonstrating the wreckage suicide leaves behind. He says again and again that he was there for Hannah, and that if only she hadn’t pushed him away he would have gladly helped her. That is a strong argument against committing suicide, and shows that there is never a reason to give up hope. However, a reader would have to get to the end of the book to see how broken Clay is and how much he would have been willing to do to help Hannah, so the vengeful appeal of Hannah’s voice might outweigh these considerations for a reader who does not take the time to finish the book. That’s what I worry about.
The very last person who Hannah blames is a teacher. She records her conversation with him, and he’s incredibly unhelpful. As a teacher myself, this was perhaps the most chilling scene for me. I like to think I’d do a better job when faced with a depressed, incoherent student who’s on the verge of suicide, but one really never knows. I don’t think I’ll ever complain about the required yearly viewing of the Jason Foundation suicide prevention videos again.
The very end of the book shows Clay reaching out toward another girl in his life who seems distant and depressed, so it offers the vision of taking action to help those who might need it, which is an important, hopeful message. After a book that is so bleak at times, it is good that Asher provides a way to direct positive energy to prevent future teenage suicides. The book has had an overwhelmingly positive response, and it’s been assigned in lots of schools because it’s such a great way to get a class talking about lots of important issues that affect teens’ lives. Others have said that it makes students think about how their actions and words impact others, and they’re right. I hope my fears and reservations are just paranoid.